Sings Like Hell presents Richard Thompson’s 1,000 Years of Popular Music
At the Lobero Theatre, Friday, May 12.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
The trio — Richard Thompson, Debra Dobkin, and Judith Owen — entered from the rear of the theater and marched down the aisle to the stage. Followed by a single spotlight, they were already singing and generally making a racket. It felt like the beginning of a medieval ceremony, a piece of the “rough music” that brought the workers of the 12th century out to the commons for a bit of a good time. And so it was, for Richard Thompson’s marvelous new show about the history of popular music really does begin in the year 1190, and then proceeds to pour endless, effortless draughts of popular music from the intervening centuries as though it were all so much golden British ale.
Thompson’s stirring baritone — one of the world’s most recognizable voices — easily conjures the misery and ecstasy of centuries-old causes and conditions. Debra Dobkin performs very creditably on drums and vocals, but it was Judith Owen who nearly stole the show with her exquisite reading of “Cry Me a River,” replete with vocal acrobatics and a fearsome microphone technique. Owen provides the rich, tender counterpoint that Thompson’s singing requires without consciously recalling either Linda Thompson or Sandy Denny — no mean feat.
Thompson’s remarks about each of the evening’s many numbers revealed a playful yet serious and scholarly knowledge of music and its place in history. By the end of the evening, Thompson had woven a web that stretched not only across the centuries but also around the world, from Admiral Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square (“Trafalgar”), to Ray Davies in India (“See My Friends”), to the rock ’n’ roll scene in Sydney, Australia, circa 1966. The latter, as expressed in the Easybeats’s “Friday on My Mind,” a perfect piece of British Invasion pop, was one of the evening’s many highlights.
Throughout the more than two hours of music, Thompson stayed totally in the moment, never letting audience attention or his crafty, subtly gorgeous guitar playing lag. Leading by example, Thompson brought his listeners to focus on the twin aspects of the popular tradition that clearly mean the most to him — its ongoing solidarity with common people and their concerns, and its persistent, often uncanny frivolity and irreverence. His choices — animated by the connoisseur’s heightened feeling for the telling detail and the entertainer’s sixth sense about what works — were consistently surprising. The Beatles were represented by “It Won’t Be Long,” a sneaky, sophisticated early example of the Lennon/McCartney genius for the middle eight, and the jazz era was revealed through the intricate syncopations of the Ink Spots’s “Java Jive.” Like only the very best concerts, this one goes on and on in your mind afterwards, rewriting history, one song at a time.